Senate Democrats left for their weeklong recess on Friday in a dour mood.
After weeks of negotiations, the majority of the Democratic caucus remains in a standoff with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) over just how much to invest in President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Democrats’ hopes of passing major legislation before the midterm elections rest on their ability to cobble together 50 votes in the Senate for the Build Back Better Act ― a sweeping package that would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to invest in climate policies and expand the nation’s social welfare system, from health care and elder care to child care and higher education.
Manchin and Sinema initially seemed focused on the legislative package’s overall price tag, with both arguing that $3.5 trillion, a figure agreed to by moderates and progressives on the Senate Budget Committee, is too much spending. But the specifics of what they want to cut are not clear. And the mystery is feeding fears about the entire project failing.
“Is there a possibility — a horrible possibility, which would be so terrible for this country — that because two people refuse to do what 96% of the caucus wants, that nothing will happen? There is that possibility,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said Friday. “I think it’s a minimal possibility, but that possibility exists.”
The White House has little time for pessimistic projections, instead arguing that the process of negotiating massive pieces of legislation, whether it be Obamacare in 2009 and 2010 or the GOP’s tax cuts in 2017, always involves ups and downs and negotiations with individual holdouts. Biden spent much of the past week meeting with different wings of the Democratic Party, in hopes of making progress toward a final package.
Biden’s administration believes the artificial deadline created by a planned House vote on the president’s bipartisan infrastructure deal ― a vote that ended up being delayed after progressives insisted the deal remain tied to the social spending package ― resulted in more progress toward an agreement. Some in the administration are hopeful that an end-of-October deadline to keep the nation’s surface transportation programs funded could result in another burst of progress.
Sanders, like many Democrats invested in the various policies in the bill, said he’s not ready to make any concessions yet. But so far, neither are Manchin and Sinema.
Cutting any one of the bill’s proposed programs, like expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision, or any number of the proposed climate policies, risks losing another lawmaker’s support. Different individual senators are heavily invested in provisions boosting long-term care, child care or the fight against climate change. Emotions are running high.
“There’s a lot of stress being felt, a lot of things at stake in terms of causes that many of us fought for, for a lifetime,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters last week. “Imagine how I feel about the immigration issue. You can take the child tax issue for Booker, Bennet, Brown and others. It becomes very personal.” (Durbin was referring to Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.)
It’s been hard to parse what the Senate’s two most conservative Democrats want to see included in the package. Manchin, who has been a bit more public with his demands, says he’s worried about the inflationary effects of passing another large spending bill (though the White House’s chief economists have tried to dispel those concerns).
Manchin has indicated he doesn’t support universal programs, and wants to target programs so they only benefit the really needy. For example, he would like fewer families to receive the expanded child tax credit, limiting it to those with substantially lower incomes.
Sinema, meanwhile, has been much cagier with her demands. Her office swatted down reports that she wanted major cuts to climate-related policies. Other lawmakers have said she’s not on board with the party’s proposal to lower prescription drug costs or raise corporate tax rates — policies that not only have broad backing in Congress, but have overwhelming support among the American public. All that’s really known is that Sinema wants to spend less.
Top-ranking Democrats are in the dark, too.
“I am really dumbfounded as to why these two are approaching public policy in the way that they’re doing,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said of Sinema and Manchin. “And I know some have been saying, ‘Well, the Democrats don’t appreciate that there are different philosophies within the Democratic Party’ ... I don’t buy that at all. Sinema has been everything from a Green Party person to a liberal to I-don’t-know-what. I don’t know what’s driving her now, and I can’t buy ‘I just think it’s too much, too much money.’”
Waters has been championing what would be a historic investment in the nation’s housing infrastructure. The proposed policy would make major expansions in public housing and Section 8, and encourage cities to improve zoning laws with the aim of creating more affordable units.
But the proposed housing policy, like many others, is reportedly at risk of getting seriously cut. If that’s the case, Waters doesn’t see any other opportunity to make these kinds of investments in housing.
“I’m worried to death,” said Waters, who worked with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to send a letter from every Democrat on the Financial Services Committee to Biden asking him to protect housing programs. “I’m absolutely worried and frightened about the prospect of moving from $3.5 trillion to $2 trillion or $1.5 trillion and what that means in cuts.”
The same goes for policies like paid leave. Advocates and lawmakers see this as a once-in-a-political-generation chance to guarantee workers paid leave if they start a family or have to care for a sick loved one. House Democratic aides say they’re uncertain what the Senate will do with the proposal.
Some consensus policies are almost certain to survive: some form of the child tax credit, for instance, along with at least a few of the climate provisions. Despite Sinema’s opposition, many Democrats are still hopeful the party will be able to deliver on a promise to give Medicare the ability to negotiate better prices with prescription drug companies. Other policy aims, including Biden’s proposal for free community college, face more uncertainty.
Some Democratic aides and think tank denizens have tried to game out ways to reach lower spending levels, and have debated whether it would be better to fully fund a smaller number of programs, or to keep more programs alive while funding them at lower levels. But that debate remains academic until the party can settle on how much to spend.